Thursday, 15 May 2008

The Moving Finger Writes....

When Hillary Clinton made her gaffe about running the gauntlet of fire in Kosovo, there was a lot of editorial comment in the press about memory and how a person edits it. I got interested in the discussion and went and did some research, culminating in reading a book called White Gloves, How We Create Ourselves Through Memory, by John Kotre. This book turned out to be a bit off the topic I was looking for, but is a marvelous read for anyone who doesn't have basic psychology training but is interested in how memory works to form character in young children.

And so I started thinking about memory forming my character and that of my daughters. And how I edit memory myself. The premise of the book is that we form memory in different ways at different ages, and that memory is stored and accessed in layers. One of the major things we do is to stretch memory to cover more than the original event – leading to, for instance, a clear memory that it was always sunny in the summer at the cottage. Or the conviction that your sister always got the first chance at something and you got second. These convictions shape your perception of reality as an adult – causing extra misery if your week of vacation is rainy or colouring your reaction to your sister's success. It is possible, according to Kotre to deconstruct these memories and influence how you react to things, although he is very sceptical about accessing childhood memories (regressing, I think is the term, but I took the book back to the library).

A lot of our childhood memories are, in fact, not ours but are picked up from the adults around us and incorporated as if they were real. We tell our children stories about themselves and they internalize these stories. Or, at least, my family did it that way. My grandmother and my mother told me stories about myself as a baby or a two year old or whatever. I can identify some of these stories as dramatizations when I think about them. Or at least as edited versions of an event that was probably a lot more shapeless when it took place. As an example, my mother would tell, repeatedly, a story about taking me to the House of Commons public gallery at the age of three and being embarrassed by my saying in clear and ringing tones 'there's the man who wore Daddy's pants' about an MP who was my father's friend, causing all the MP's to look up at the gallery. This story was supposed to illustrate my precocious command of clear speech and, I suppose, that I was an extroverted toddler. The tale has become part of my mental furniture. I have no clue how it really happened, but I think of myself as having been a confident and extroverted child.

I think we all do this to our children to some extent. My grandmother relied on her memory; my mother did much the same. When I do what my daughters call 'telling baby stories' I tend to pull out photograph albums to illustrate things, or I tell stories from the photographs. Because although my grandmother and my mother did have photographs, they were far fewer and mostly static poses. I have maybe half a dozen images of my mother as a little girl. I have more of myself in my first three years because my father was in the navy during WWII and the family sent him photographs; it was much more expensive, relatively, to take and develop photos in the '40's and '50's. Even in the '60's, colour photographs were an item that most people had to budget for. Today's disposable cameras and $.19 prints amaze me; even more astounding is the digital photograph revolution, making still and live photography available in quantity immediately. And so, where my mother relied on her memory, my daughter will have not only still photography but also video to discuss with her daughter.

And there is the mommy blog. Unless your mother kept a diary or a baby book, your stories, like mine, rely on the spoken word backed up with still photographs or even the occasional grainy 'home movie'. Mommy bloggers' children will have the stories preserved, in their original form, backed with copious illustrations in living and sometimes moving colour, put together as the event unfolded. You will probably still retell seminal stories to your children. But your blog will be there to give them a different look, a time frozen reference, to these stories. And to the woman who was telling them.

I wonder a lot about how that will unfold. I picture my granddaughter remembering, say, planting flowers with grama. And there will be the story, with photographs of her in her bug shirt lining up the plant pots. Not raw data, certainly. All of us necessarily edit the stories as we tell them, shaping them to fit the time and space we have to get the story down, emphasizing the point we want to make about what happened. Even bits of dialogue get edited for coherency or chosen to fit into the thought thread as it is spun out onto the page.

I wonder, as I write this, how my mother would have blogged about her day at the House of Commons with her daughter. Or how she felt about raising a child alone when her husband was out sailing around in a corvette in the North Atlantic, in constant danger. I have these stories as she told them recollected in tranquility and, I am sure, smoothed into a pleasing shape by time and repetition. I know that the stories I tell to my daughters are, in fact, partly constructions formed by time and retelling. The stories about Little Stuff, on the other hand, are immediate, although shaped. I almost wish I could live long enough to understand if there will be an appreciable difference.

I won't. When Little Stuff is, say, forty, I would be 101. I'm not hoping to be that old; don't much want to be, tell the truth. And so I write this blog, a message sent forward into the future with hope and love, and try my best to make it a true record, even though I know it can't be perfect, of who I am, what I think, and how we were together.

And I had better get myself back to the sewing machine and start on dress #6, green spangles and all. Tempus is fugiting.


  1. One thing is for sure - I cannot believe that Hillary had actually talked herself into believing that story. I think it was an embellishment she just didn't know when to give up ... and it may cost her the Presidency. (Then again, I would rather her than 'sweetheart' wielding Obama)

  2. When my great-aunt died, so many of the family stories got made me think with this post! And hmm, think I'll be reading that book next...

  3. this is really interesting, I've thought about that, too, wondering how many of my memories are actual memories and what I've constructed from what I've been told. MQ loves to look at the scrapbooks I've made, and I know that they are playing a huge role in what and how she remembers.

  4. Thanks, maypole. How could I have forgotten about scrapbooking. You're right, it's huge. And hold a lot of information about the person doing it as well as what it is recording. Little Stuff's mother helped her make a scrapbook about her time on Vancouver Island last year.
    daysgoby, it's a really interesting thesis. I learned a lot.
    w, I am more at the 'a pox on both your houses' stage.

  5. I have started backing away from blogging about Miss M's shyness b/c I don't want my record of it to make it a self-fulfilling prophesy for her. I would also hope to keep the blog from her until a time when her adulthood had settled such that she could and would dispute my narrative on the basis of her lived experience. Don't know if I'll succeed at that.

  6. Yes, I'm becoming aware of how adults' stories and memories shape children's memories... it's like a family mythology. As much as it's scary to have so much power, I suspect it's also inevitable, and much better to be aware than not. Perhaps we have SOME ability to tread sensitively?